Study: York County hospitalization rate low during first four months of pandemic

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch
Ann Elliott, R.N., left, and clinical operations coordinator and patient safety officer Jennifer Strayer work together at the drive up COVID-19 coronavirus testing site at WellSpan Family Medicine - Cape Horn in Windsor Township, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Candidates must be directed to the facility for testing by a physician prior to arrival. Dawn J. Sagert photo

New findings showed that York County had a low rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations from March to June, which officials said was a relatively slow start to the spread of the virus that would later spike and infect more people at the start of winter.

During the first four months of the pandemic, York County's hospitals admitted 205 patients at a rate of 4.8 per 100,000 residents, according to data published Wednesday by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus swept through densely packed urban centers, such as Philadelphia and Delaware counties. The state had 2,541 hospitalizations across all 67 counties, with a rate of 14.5 per 100,000 residents between March and June, according to the report.

Dr. Matt Howie, medical director for the York City Bureau of Health, said several factors including criteria for hospital admission, seasonal characteristics and changes in virus attitude contributed to the low hospitalization rate at the start of the pandemic.

"I suspect this was a virus that was coming into the community during a period of time where the spread of that class of virus was likely on the wane and lessening," Howie said, adding that warmer months are not ideal for the coronavirus. 

Though PHC4's study only shows a small stretch of time, Howie said he predicts the later half of the year would present higher numbers and rates of admission.

Over the span of four months, York County's hospitals admitted 205 patients at a rate of 4.8 per 100,000 residents. In comparison, the state had 2,541 hospitalizations across all 67 counties, with a rate of 14.5 per 100,000 residents.

What Howie cited as "COVID fatigue," a phenomenon used to describe the changing attitudes of people in response to coronavirus, such as increased socialization and less mask wearing, is partly responsible for spikes in cases seen at the start of the holiday season.

"That combination turned out to be really dramatically dangerous, and that's why I think we saw in the second half of the year a large increase of hospitalizations and complications from COVID," Howie said. "The hospitalization rates over the last few months are much higher than we saw in the previous portions of the pandemic."

Additionally, Howie cited that geographical factors contributed to how the virus affected different populations at the beginning of the pandemic.

For example, Philadelphia and Delaware counties saw a much higher rate for hospitalizations because of their dense populations.

"This virus really loves proximity. It loves to spread when people are close together," Howie said. "That's where it does its best to spread."

Joe Martin, the executive director of PHC4, said one of the report's findings he found interesting was the conclusion that higher hospital admission rates correlated with counties in the east.

The higher rates for some counties could also reflect residents with "high-risk characteristics" such as factors relating to age, ethnicity and income.

"Looking forward, we are eager to continue analyzing hospital admission data throughout the rest of the year and plan to update these results when newer data becomes available," Martin said via email.

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.